December 2010 Issue

Please Pass the Flavor — Alternative Tastes and Techniques Can Reduce the Need for Added Salt
By Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, CSSD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 12 P. 12

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans committee report recommends that consumers slash sodium consumption. And as writer Maggie Moon, MS, RD, revealed in “Salt Talk — Experts Call for Acceptable Sodium Levels in Foods” in Today’s Dietitian’s July issue, experts agree it’s time to reduce dietary sodium intake.

As expected, people are thinking and talking much more about taste. Consumers are inquiring about different types of salt in hopes that they will flavor food while providing less sodium; scientists are further exploring humans’ taste buds; chefs are considering alternative ways to enhance the flavor of the foods they serve—and dietitians must be able to enlighten their clients about all of it.

This article will help readers answer questions about the sodium content of various types of salt, discuss the mysterious taste of umami, and offer flavor insights from chefs’ perspectives.

Salt Varieties
According to the committee report, the major dietary sources of sodium are yeast breads, chicken and chicken mixed dishes, pizza, pasta and pasta dishes, cold cuts, condiments, Mexican mixed dishes, sausages, franks, bacon, ribs, regular cheeses, grain-based desserts, soups, and beef and beef mixed dishes.1 Salt is still used when cooking at home and is an important ingredient in restaurant meals. Consumer food blogs and popular media are talking about substituting table salt with varieties of sea salt for taste and to slightly reduce sodium intake. The accompanying table offers answers to clients’ possible inquiries about the sodium content of and uses for various salts.

Understanding Umami
As they search for alternative ways to emphasize flavor in lieu of using salt, culinary experts may want to turn their attention to umami. In 1907, Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Tokyo, pondered the unique taste of kelp (konbu) and meat. Ikeda initiated an investigation to identify the taste component of dried konbu and discovered that the sodium salt of glutamic acid (ie, monosodium glutamate [MSG]) was responsible. He termed this flavor umami. Since this first project, further investigations have revealed that the flavor of umami is MSG and the synergizing ribonucleotides, inosine and guanosine monophosphates, and 5’-guanylate.2

Umami is described as the meaty or savory flavor found in many types of seafood, seaweed, fish, meats, and mushrooms.3 Kurihara notes that the concentration of umami substances has been measured in a variety of foods. Glutamate has been identified in konbu, green tea, seaweed, tomatoes, potatoes, Chinese cabbage, soybeans, Parmesan cheese, sardines, prawns, and clams. Among the highest sources of free glutamate are fresh tomatoes and breast milk, with levels similar to konbu. Only animal products such as sardines, mackerel, tuna, pork, beef, and chicken contain inosinate. Guanylate is highest in a variety of mushrooms.4

Scientists have recently identified several distinct umami receptors.3 The diverse puzzle of receptors found on the anterior and posterior taste buds may explain umami’s complex and varied taste. Additionally, umami substances have been shown to increase the palatability of a variety of foods and may affect the “feel” of a food. For example, Beauchamp describes the sensory properties of MSG as a flavor enhancer while contributing to a food’s feeling of “fullness” and says it also adds a “tactile” property to foods.2

Many questions about this curious flavor remain unanswered; therefore, umami is under evaluation for its relationship (if any) with satiety, taste preferences, and even obesity.

Chefs’ Takes on Salt
With experts pushing for a reduction in dietary sodium intake, dietitians know that consumers’ taste buds will need time to adjust. Najat Kaanache, a chef from Rosas, Spain, who has trained with venerated chefs from around the globe, asserts, “Salt is necessary.” Kaanache adds that there are few “tricks” that can replace salt, but we can moderate the amount we add to food.

Chef J. Hugh McEvoy, CRC, CEC, president of Chicago Research Chefs, says consumer taste preferences often “win” over expert mandates. And because taste is paramount in the restaurant industry, he says many chefs “will be reluctant to handicap themselves in the battle of flavor.” McEvoy offers the following three traditional techniques that can reduce the need for added salt:

• Concentrate flavors via reduction (eg, make a demi-glace or wine reduction, which will yield an intense flavor without salt).

• Use foods such as dried mushrooms and certain hard grated cheeses, which are rich in natural flavor enhancers.

• Choose natural whole foods. Ripe, rich, and flavorful produce requires far less salt to enhance its palatability.

— Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, CSSD, is a nutrition writer, blogger, and communications consultant living in Chicago.


1. U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Part D. Section 6: Sodium, potassium, and water. June 15, 2010. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2010.

2. Beauchamp GK. Sensory and receptor responses to umami: An overview of pioneering work. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(suppl):223S-227S.

3. Chaudhari N, Pereira E, Roper SD. Taste receptors for umami: The case for multiple receptors. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(suppl):738S-742S.

4. Kurihara K. Glutamate: From discovery as a food flavor to role as a basic taste (umami). Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(suppl):719S-722S.



Sodium Levels of Various Salts

Type of Salt

Serving Size

Sodium per

Other Notable

Uses or Description

Coarse salt

1 tsp (6 g)

2,338 mg


Type of rock salt;
ground coarse
(sometimes called
pretzel salt).

Dairy or pickling

1 tsp (6 g)

2,358 mg


Used to cure cheeses.

Kosher salt

1 tsp (4.9 g)

1,968 mg

None aside from

Coarse salt composed
of large, irregular
crystals. Used in cooking
due to its texture and
"brighter" flavor.

Rock salt

1 tsp (4.725 g)

1,838 mg


Chunky, crystalline,
unrefined salt. Not
usually consumed;
used to encrust meats
or in ice cream
machines or as a bed
for clams and oysters. 

Sea salts

1 tsp
5 g)

1,950 mg

Contain trace
minerals such
as iodine,
and potassium 

Distilled from sea water

Celtic salt

Expensive. Made from
a solar evaporation
method using waters
from Celtic Sea marshes.
The flavor is described
as mellow.

Esprit du sel

This salt comes from
France. Gray in color,
slightly moist.

Fleur de sel

Salt evaporated from
the salt marshes in
Guerande, France
(said to form only
when the wind blows
from the east).

Gray salt
(sel gris)

Generic type of sea
salt; moist.

Indian sea salts

Colors include pink,
brown, and black.

Seasoned salt
(eg, Lawry's)

1 tsp (4.8 g)

1,520 mg

Herbs and spices

One or many herbs
and spices added,
such as garlic (salt),
onion (salt), etc.

Sour salt

1 tsp (6 g)

Less than 1 mg


Not actually a salt;
it’s citric acid. Sometimes
used as a salt substitute.
Gives a zesty,
tart flavor.

Table salt
(often iodized)

1 tsp (6 g)

2,325 mg


Finely ground, refined
rock salt.

Salt Alternatives

Serving Size

Sodium per

Other Notable

Uses or Description

Mrs. Dash

1 tsp (2.8 g)

Sodium free

Herbs and spices


glutamate (MSG)

1 tsp (4 g)

640 mg



— Author compiled figures using Axxya Systems’ Nutritionist Pro software and the USDA Nutrient Database